A little over a year ago while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a Buzzfeed News video about a new pop-up museum in San Francisco called the Color Factory. A quote from one of the exhibits’ creators stood out:
“I know people are wanting experiences more than things—I know I do. It was really important to us that each exhibit had three characteristics: that it was experiential; that it was conceptual, that there was something deeper behind it; and then, that it was very, like, photogenic so it would be shared on social media.” – Jordan Ferney
It was the last characteristic of the Color Factory’s concept that most captured my interest: photographability. As social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat become ever more embedded into our daily lives, users are constantly looking for spaces, places, and activities that are “worthy” of capturing and posting online. These images are frequently self-representational and include the user in some way, so much so that pop-up museums have come to be called “selfie factories” in the popular press. While some turn to these “made-for-Instagram-museums” as their backdrops, others seek out distant locales and risky situations to impress their respective digital communities1.
Because the photo-taker is always a visitor in these spaces, transience is a key thread connecting these three types of visual self-representations. The traveler or tourist is a visitor by definition. Pop-up museums are named for their temporally limited installment, making the space itself transient. Risky selfie-takers are not only visiting a space but often doing so illegally, not only transient but also transgressing boundaries. And yet, those who engage in these practices are never far from home. As Clark-Parsons2 aptly explained in her contribution to this issue, people have long made sense of the internet through spatial metaphors, making Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram into spaces with residents and borders, barriers of access and norms of participation. But rather than a home defined by geographic boundaries, these sites offer users a home defined by culture and social bonds. And today’s mobile smartphone technology allows us to carry these homes in our pockets, allowing us to feel “at home” virtually anywhere in the world.
Of course, the comforts of home can also be restricting. Though physically displaced, the pressures to perform the norms of one's community3 now follow the transient visitor through the lens of their smartphone. Like Foucault’s panopticon, the selfie as a networked self-representation forces its taker to surveille themselves; however, this surveillance is based on the norms of their digital culture rather than the one they physically occupy. This duality of expectations4 can often lead to morally questionable selfies and backlash from those outside of the user’s discourse community. For risky selfie-takers, the pressures to perform can even have deadly consequences.
While digital spaces offer those who are physically removed a perpetual connection to their community, they also reinforce the norms and expectations of that community on the displaced user. Any tension between \transiency/ and \home/ in the visitor selfie is imagined: users seek out “worthy” spaces and places to distinguish themselves within their communities, but also as a means of reaffirming their own belonging. The performance of the self, captured in the selfie, is fashioned by the norms of the digital community. Thus, to be transient, or to perform transiency, in a community of transients is to be at home.
Home is a concept that most immediately understand but have difficulty putting into words. Song writers have expressed home as the place where loved ones reside, or where one’s passions lie. Many would agree that it’s where you feel most comfortable, where you fully understand the norms and values and are able to perform them without much effort. But if this comfort is now portable—if home is a digital space you can swipe in and out of at a whim—then we must interrogate when and where one might be not-home and the implications of the shifting understandings of these two dialectic concepts.
1. Swales, John. "Approaching the Concept of Discourse Community." (1987).
2. Clark-Parsons, Rosemary. “Toward a Feminist Approach to Digital Space.” Media Commons, 12 June 2019, http://mediacommons.org/fieldguide/content/toward-feminist-approach-digi....
3. Dinhopl, Anja, and Ulrike Gretzel. "Selfie-taking as touristic looking." Annals of Tourism Research 57 (2016): 126-139.
4. Bell, Claudia, and John Lyall. "‘I was here’: pixilated evidence." The Media and the Tourist Imagination. Routledge, 2005. 149-156.